Four episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
Is there anything Donald Glover can’t do? From starring as lovable goofball Troy Barnes on Community (which, for my money, is one of the best comedies NBC has ever broadcast) to exploding on the music charts as quick-witted rapper Childish Gambino, the man is a virtuoso not just of comedy but of language, and more specifically its ability to tell stories simultaneously compelling and humanely composed. Given his resume, then, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that Atlanta, the half-hour FX comedy on which Glover serves as creator, executive producer, writer, director, executive music producer and star, is a knockout.
And yet little about Atlanta isn’t surprising. Landing at the forefront of a television season that, Ava DuVernay’s upcoming Queen Sugar aside, seems studded with likely duds, the comedy is a sharply etched, gorgeously nuanced work of art, laced with a feeling of meditation and melancholy that matters as much to its overall tone and narrative as its (often achingly funny) sense of humor. It’s certainly like nothing else you’ve ever seen on the small screen, both in how it treats its spread of worn-out, hard-scrabbling characters with compassion and quiet scrutiny; and how its leisurely, sometimes surreal pace (Glover has described the series as “Twin Peaks for rappers,” and that descriptor feels more lucid by premiere’s end) nonetheless feels like it’s gathering an invisible, heavy momentum.
The first four episodes of the series feel like a brewing storm, or a slow tide slowly building up around your knees. They open on the importantly named Earn Marks (Glover), lost in his own life and struggling to find some sense of forward direction. With a need to tend to the brittle yet sympathetic Van (Zazie Beetz), the mother of his child, and to his own deep sense of career dissatisfaction, Earn makes the spontaneous decision to head back to his home turf and play manager to troublesome cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), who’s on the cusp of making it as rapper Paper Boi. Along with Alfred’s spaced-out friend Darius (Keith Stanfield), the pair make small steps (more like shuffles) toward fame, all the while navigating the sometimes bizarre, sometimes brutal, always absorbing reality of life in the historically tense, culturally roiling city of Atlanta.
It’s a long way to the top, especially when you’re starting out as close to the bottom as Earn and Alfred. The promise of easy money to be made peddling drugs cannot be denied, and the pair’s hesitant dips into the criminal side of their hometown constitute one of myriad diversions from Alfred’s seemingly possible rise to fame. Atlanta as a whole, however, isn’t about the destination. It’s a show that finds pleasure in the journey, and humor in the obstacles Earn and Alfred are forced to tumble over, from shocking violence to abject poverty, without short-changing the difficulty of each and every one.
Along the way, Atlanta reaches big, pulling into its gentle yet pragmatic heart issues of racism, artistry, criminality, transphobia, sexual and gender identity, mass incarceration, mental illness, and domestic strife. What’s doubly interesting about its strikingly large scope, however, is that Atlanta doesn’t feel like an “issue” show. Rather, it naturally folds all of these topics, drenched in the sociopolitical humidity of 2016, into its arms. The show is profoundly proud to be by black writers and for the black community, and it feels like a massively significant series for that reason (its format makes it perhaps the series most conducive to exploring the black experience in America in years), but it also aspires to even loftier heights, aiming to fully construct its characters and explore them from universally human angles.
In one scene, Earn is awaiting bail after being arrested on a weapons charge for taking a handgun out of Alfred’s car glovebox. The holding cell is stuffed with other people, there on a variety of charges (most, the scene shows, are black). One man is surprised to see his ex, a trans woman, in the same cell, and begins a conversation with her that reveals their romantic history; like shoving a dagger, other men in the cell call him a “faggot,” and he grows outraged, lashing out first at them then at her. Earn, caught in the middle and out of the corner of his mouth, murmurs with a shrug that “sexuality is a spectrum” and that “you can really do whatever you want.”
It’s a moment at once hilarious and heartbreaking, rooted in the dual pains of shame and oppression but approached from a place of wry compassion. Atlanta is filled with many such moments, from unexpected places and every character. Alfred, in confronting his fame, tries to talk kids down from emulating the lifestyle of violence his breakout song promotes; in the preceding scene, those kids play innocently with an outsized ray gun, and it’s hard not to see the face of Tamir Rice reflected in one young boy. Darius, acting as something of an all-seeing philosopher blinded by his own weed smoke, often reflects on the cycles in which the trio find themselves trapped in, and his musings sometimes hit like steamrollers.
One thing is clear after watching the first four episodes of this revelation of a series: Atlanta is one of the year’s best, and it is like nothing else on television, maybe ever. Imagine a series with the ambition and charge of The Wire, the reflective gallows comedy of Louie, and Glover’s unique brand of subtle brilliance – and then you’ll be getting close to having some sense of where Atlanta seems to be heading. It’s a series you can’t afford to miss.
It's surprising to find a freshman series this assured, and unheard of to see one so immediately flawless. Simply put, Atlanta is brilliant.